from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Public Wants Tougher Action in Syria—but Not U.S. Troops

August 27, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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As violence escalates in Syria, so do Republican attacks of the Obama administration’s alleged passivity. No doubt we’ll hear more such critiques this week from the podium in Tampa, where the GOP gathers to nominate Mitt Romney. Such hawkish views may resonate with the U.S. public—but only to a point. As recent polling data makes clear, Americans are appalled by the depradations of the Assad regime and seek its removal from power. They support a variety of robust multilateral measures, including the imposition of tougher international sanctions, and the creation of safe havens to protect civilians. But they are not prepared to dispatch U.S. troops to protect Syrian civilians, even as part of a broader coalition, much less to depose the regime. In addition, Americans support a no-fly zone in theory, though oppose bombing air defenses—a necessary component of establishing a no-fly zone.  Indeed, Americans remain divided even when it comes to providing arms to rebels.

These are among the main findings of newly updated digests of U.S. and global opinion on violent conflict, compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

And Americans, it turns out, are not alone in their ambivalence. Public attitudes toward the Syrian crisis are remarkably similar in Great Britain and France, the two most likely U.S. partners in any potential intervention. Syria’s Arab neighbors, meanwhile, are even more conflicted. While there is little love lost for Bashar Assad in the region, publics in most Arab countries—as well as Turkey—remain deeply opposed to Western military intervention in Syria, even one given multilateral cover.

Americans are clearly worried about Syria’s crisis. Responding to a CNN poll earlier this month, over 70 percent declared themselves (very or somewhat) “concerned,” and nearly two-thirds defined “the removal of the Syrian regime from power” as an important U.S. foreign policy goal. An equivalent percentage favors  U.S. participation in a multilateral sanctions regime against Syria, and an overwhelming majority supports providing humanitarian aid to Syrians.

Beyond these steps, however, the U.S. public begins to get a bit more ambivalent. Take the creation of a no-fly zone. In June, a clear majority (58 percent) of respondents said they would support the United States and its allies enforcing such a zone over the country. But when the provision of air cover is presented as actually taking sides in the conflict, Americans get a bit more divided. Earlier this month, when CNN asked about “the U.S. and other countries using military airplanes and missiles” to try to carve out zones where “opposition forces would be safe from attacks by the Syrian government,” opinion was divided (46 percent in favor, 49 pecent opposed). And when Fox News asked more baldly in March about whether the United States should “launch air strikes to oust the Syrian government,” two thirds were opposed.

A solid majority of the U.S. public supports the Arab League and Turkey sponsoring safe havens for civilians in Syria. Indeed, two-thirds of Americans think this would be a good idea, on the grounds “that the international community has the responsibility to protect Syrians at risk,” even if “this would violate Syria’s sovereignty.” On the other hand, Americans are split about using U.S. military assets to guarantee the sanctity of these havens, whether through providing air cover (48 percent favorable, 45 percent opposed), supplying weapons (56 percent opposed), or sending U.S. troops to defend them (77 percent opposed).

In general, the idea of the United States contributing troops to military operations in Syria garners very low support. In a June Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll, Americans overwhelmingly rejected “bombing Syrian air defenses” (which would be inherent in any no-fly zone), 72 percent to 22 percent. More recently, this month CNN found only 32 percent of Americans supporting (64 percent opposing) “using ground troops to try to establish zones” where opposition forces could not be attacked.

If there is one area where the public has shown movement, it is in providing arms and supplies to the opposition. As recently as June 2012, two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) opposed the prospect of the United States and its allies “sending arms and supplies to anti-government groups in Syria.” By this month, however, CNN/ORC found opinion almost evenly divided on this very same question, with 48 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. This shift in opinion suggests a potential political opening for advocates—whether in the GOP or the Obama administration—of more vigorous support for the Syrian opposition.

Like their American counterparts, the British public supports the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria—with support rising to 70 percent if it is approved by the United Nations. If anything, Brits appear to be more open than Americans to enforcing such a zone militarily. The French, for their part, narrowly approve of a “United Nations military intervention in Syria” (51 to 49 percent). In neither country, however, is there strong support for dispatching national troop contingents to conduct a ground war in Syria.

The prospect of such an intervention is deeply unpopular among Syria’s neighbors. To be sure, overwhelming majorities in most Arab countries and Turkey are sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, believe Assad is no longer a viable ruler, and want him to step down. But, with few exceptions, Arabs show little support for tougher international sanctions, much less Arab military intervention.  And the prospect of a U.S-led Western military campaign is anathema. This is significant, since roughly seven in ten polled in six Arab countries (Jordan, Morocco, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon) already disapprove of the U.S. role in the Syrian situation. These regional dynamics are worth bearing in mind, as the United States charts its course in Syria.

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